May 19, 2000
Rich Rodek wrote:
I recently replied to an invitation, stating that I would be there with bells on. After replying, I realized that I really did not have a clue what that means. Can you help me?
Your native-speaker intuition is certainly operating beautifully; you used the expression absolutely correctly and in absolutely the right circumstance, even if you didn't know what you were saying.
With bells on, in its most common current use, is an informal expression that means 'eagerly; ready to enjoy oneself', and your response was sure to please your host. There's the added connotation that you're not only looking forward to the occasion (usually some sort of party) but that you're all set to contribute to the festivities and add to everyone else's enjoyment. And "I'll be there..." is so often heard preceding the "bells" part that they're virtually inseparable. You did well.
The interesting thing about with bells on is that its use is amazingly restricted. With rare exceptions, it's a frozen, formulaic expression, part of a social ritual, used almost exclusively to respond to an invitation to a festive event. And part of its normal function is to assure your host that you not only plan to attend, but that you're sure it's going to be one swell party.
You've probably never heard anyone talk about "being there with bells on" when asked casually to go to a movie, for example. And I doubt that you'd respond to a letter of acceptance to graduate school at Harvard by saying you'll be there in September with bells on. It simply wouldn't do.
There are special variations, of course. F. Scott Fitzgerald left the final preposition off in his 1922 Beautiful & Damned, where we see, "All-ll-ll righty. I'll be there with bells." And there is an occasional use of with bells on as a more general intensifier, something to add a little punch. A 1930 cite says, "You can have it...with bells on," and one from 1960 reads (rather rudely, I think), "The same to you, with bells on." But mostly, it's party time.
As for origins, various sources postulate a rather vague association between bells and gala gatherings ("rings on her fingers and bells on her toes," and all that). I myself have always thought of the hat worn by the royal fool--the court jester's cap--with its little round, tinkling bells signaling merriment. So enjoy your party. Have fun. Make a fool of yourself.
WORDS@RANDOM | The Mavens' Word of the Day | Sensitive Language
How to Choose A Dictionary | Book Search
|Copyright © 1995-2008 Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.